Idle Prayer

“Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” — Rule of St. Benedict

I was speaking with a spiritual director the other day, and he shared an interesting insight that relates to this St. Benedict quote. Here’s a summary of his thoughts:

I have often found over the years that those who are trying to advance in the spiritual life, to grow deeper and more consistent in their life of prayer, are often hindered by their failure to plan and organize their use of time throughout the day. Sometimes they confuse poor planning with docility to the Spirit’s promptings. One thing the spiritual authors are unanimous on is that growth in virtue and in prayer requires a well thought out rhythm of life that serves well one’s personal vocation — carefully planning when you will work, eat, pray, exercise, read, recreate, play, sleep, wake up, and so on. Poor planning, wasting time, general disorder often leaves the heart unsettled so that when the time for prayer comes, the pray-er feels hyper-distracted, dry, anxious, guilty or generally dissipated. Although each person has to organize their life in a way that fits their circumstances and temperament, the point is that no progress can really be made in prayer or the spiritual life unless time is consecrated, which means arranging it in an orderly fashion that facilitates living out one’s state in life well. I say to them, ‘A well planned day helps one to pray.’ If someone says, I’m too busy to stop and pray, after 5 minutes of questions 99% of the time I uncover poor planning, lots of wasted time, and not insufficient time.

Freedom and Order

Last year during my 8 day retreat my spiritual director gave me some life-altering advice on this general point. In addition to carefully planning my day in advance, with an eye toward prioritizing my wife and children in the midst of my work and other priorities, he counseled me to begin each morning asking the Holy Spirit to reveal how He wished me to spend my time that day. “Ask, then really listen, be attentive to any interior stirrings or insights, take them into account and then, above all, be open throughout the day to whatever He might bring to pass.” He emphasized that these two — planned order and docile freedom — go together since the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of order (cf. 1 Cor 14:33) who truly blows most freely in the context of a well-ordered life.

Idleness, which I defined here not as inactivity but as aimless activity, is poison for a soul that God created to crave aim, direction, and purpose.

The Desert Fathers railed against idleness, seeing in its rudderless drift a dangerous opening for temptations of every sort. St. Isaac the Syrian said, “Beware of idleness, beloved, for it conceals certain death; and it is idleness alone that delivers a monk into the hands of enemies striving to capture him. On that day God will condemn us not for omitting prayers, but for the fact that by omitting them we opened the door to the demons and all manner of temptation to vice.” When another Desert Father was once asked how to combat idleness, he simply replied: “Leave your cell and cultivate your brother’s garden.”

In other words, come out of yourself and aim aright at love.

Happy Feast of St. Benedict.

One comment on “Idle Prayer

  1. […] I was speaking with a spiritual director the other day, and he shared an interesting insight that relates to this St. Benedict quote. …read more […]

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